In 1960 there appeared a cartoon in Punch showing two men on a desert island, one of whom is saying to the other, "I've had a great idea when we are rescued, I am going to make a film about Oscar Wilde!"
It is not one of Punch's best jokes, even when you know the background, which is that that very year there had already appeared two films based on the life of Oscar Wilde. One was called The Trials of Oscar Wilde, starring Peter Finch as Wilde and a charismatic James Mason as Sir Edward Carson, the trial prosecutor. The other was Oscar Wilde starring Robert Morley as Oscar Wilde, and although it does now seem faintly ridiculous to cast the multi-chinned, balding Morley as dear Oscar, in fact the very first part played by Morley on Broadway in 1938 the one which made him a star in America was that of Oscar Wilde.
I do not know how the industry was so ill-organised that two films on the same man were made at the same time. What I do know is that people seem to have a fatal attraction to the Oscar Wilde story, and 1960 was not the last year in which the same old tired story was committed to the screen. And it seems to be happening again. This paper reported on Saturday that actor Rupert Everett is obsessed with the idea of producing a screenplay based on Oscar's life after prison, and also how indignant he is that "straight" people like David Hare and Richard Eyre dare to attempt to write about Oscar Wilde, and market their portrayal of him.
This, I suppose, is another reflection of that old delusion that you have to be something before you can write about it. That only men can write male parts. That women can't do male characters. That people who have never murdered anyone could not write a crime story. Very often gay characters are best portrayed by straight actors (La Cage Aux Folles, anyone?) and as our Rupert himself is playing the part of a woman in the new St Trinian's film, I wonder if he feels at all inadequate? Unlikely.
But the idea that you would have to look to the gay brotherhood for sympathy for our Oscar is ludicrous. Quite the opposite. I recently came across a reference to Oscar Wilde in Noel Coward's admirable diaries. It is dated July 1962. Here is the whole paragraph, without any comment from me.
"I have read the Oscar Wilde letters and have come to the reluctant conclusion that he was one of the silliest, most conceited and unattractive characters that ever existed. His live letters to Lord Alfred Douglas are humourless, affected and embarrassing, and his crawling letter from prison to the Home Secretary beneath contempt. De Profundis is one long wail of self-pity. It is extraordinary indeed that such a posing artificial, old queen should have written one of the greatest comedies in the English language. In my opinion, it was the only thing of the least importance that he did write."
You might think that Quentin Crisp, whose public life was tinged with artificiality, would be more sympathetic to Oscar Wilde. You would be wrong. Here is Crisp in his great book no, not The Naked Civil Servant, but his seminal textbook on living, How To Have A Lifestyle, describing Wilde on the verge of his trial:-
"All implored him to go abroad for a time. Mr Wilde took no one's advice. He stayed because he was a spiteful man and also because he couldn't bear to leave the stage. This was commendable but, if you are going to hog the limelight, you must know exactly which of your acts you are going into. Mr Wilde did not. ... He also launched himself into a long speech holding up the 'love that dare not speak its name' as a love that is pure. For all I know such love may exist but the time to go on about it is not when there has been read out in court a list as long as your arm of boys you never met except in heavily curtained rooms in Oxford ..."
Hmmmm. I think you'd really be better off hiring a couple of straight guys for the job, Rupert.Reuse content